Every year a quarter of international aid – approximately US$15 billion globally – is spent on capacity development. That is, on sending technical assistants to work in ministries or civil society, running training programmes, conducting study tours or exchanges, or supplying resources and equipment to help organisations function better. This is often referred to as ‘teaching men to fish.’ Rather than giving men (or, one might add, women) fish, teaching men to fish is seen to provide sustainable capabilities that will empower people and eventually negate the need for external support. Yet this task, far from being the technical transfer of skills, is fundamentally about social and political change.
In countries affected by conflict or fragility, this assistance is not just about improving development outcomes but is also expected to strengthen the state itself – because its very weakness is framed as both a cause and consequence of violence and underdevelopment. By defining state fragility as a problem of weak capacity, capacity development becomes the primary solution. It is also, conveniently, a problem that donors and NGOs can do something about – by providing capacity development programs.
But despite the dominance of this idea, results in practice are frequently disappointing. This is borne out by six-years of research by the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium (SLRC) on state capacity and how it tends to get built in eight countries (Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nepal, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, South Sudan and Uganda). While diverse, the studies point to a range of familiar challenges, including:
- the limited toolkit of capacity development approaches (as one respondent in Sierra Leone noted ‘training, training, training – how much training does one person need?’);
- the focus on technical aspects of service delivery, neglecting how power and politics are at the root of many problems that appear to be about capacity;
- the neglect of alternative capacities outside of the formal realm or what Western notions of ‘capacity’ look like; and
- a focus on tangible ‘units’ of a delivery systems (that is, individuals and organisations) and less on the system as a whole and how its parts interact.
Given that capacity development activities stretch back to at least the 1950s, why the frequent lament of poor results? (The SLRC synthesis report is far from the first study to point to these limitations).
The SLRC research finds many of the reasons are to do with the political economy of the aid industry itself – short timeframes, quantitatively-driven results reporting, risk aversion and an emphasis on technical rather than political and contextual skills and knowledge. But perhaps most fundamentally, and what all these factors derive from, is the fact that the aid industry turns fundamentally political processes of social and institutional change into projects – which are in turn cloaked in value-neutral technocracy. The problems become ones of limited equipment or resources, insufficient knowledge, weak coordination, poor monitoring, and so on, rather than about power, incentives and interests.
So, we see aid programmes attempting to improve service delivery in Afghanistan by building the technical capacity of village development councils, overlooking the incentives of local power brokers who hold the real sway in how services are delivered. Or programmes imply that malnutrition in Sierra Leone can be reduced by training mothers in infant and young child feeding, with little regard for the gendered power relations that mean women have little control over household finances and serve the most nutritious meal portions to older men. In South Sudan, there are examples of statebuilding being boiled down to workshops – often conducted in English – to address complex social transformations, such as local justice and peacebuilding. In all of these cases, the complexity, power and politics of the changes sought are sidestepped and turned into technical, more easily-delivered projects.
We would never think to use logframes and value for money calculations to manage the civil rights movement, for instance (although such programme management tools are used for all kinds of domestic social policy reforms). So why do we think that processes of social change can be projectized in countries affected by conflict or fragility? Is it because, while we recognise the politics inherent in some social change in our own countries, we strip it out from social change processes elsewhere and treat problems as ones of capacity alone?
To address these limitations, the SLRC argues that we need a re-politicisation of capacity development, acknowledging that we are ultimately interested in fostering social and political change. That might be by making service delivery more equitable, changing power relations in the household, or making governance arrangements more accountable. None of these are technical endeavours. Rather than shying away from this politics, we must put it front and centre and engage with it.
To do so, we might start from building a nuanced understanding of how people use services in practice – recognising what drives people’s decision-making and the breadth of providers people rely on, often extending beyond the state. We must move beyond thinking about capacity as the tangible assets of individuals (eg: teachers) and organisations (eg: schools) and begin to think much more holistically about the capacity of systems. Ensuring health workers have good technical knowledge does not make a well-functioning health system on its own. Ensuring that staff also have good bedside manner, the trust of the community, access to reliable drug supply chains, are paid on time and so do not charge bribes or sell drugs on the black market, and so on also matter.
Finally, we must be prepared to change our ways of working and thinking about the challenges faced in countries affected by conflict and fragility and move beyond the idea that capacity is the key constraint and therefore capacity development the natural answer. Rather, we need to bring to bear a much wider toolkit to support what are social and political processes of change. Ironically, this may begin by improving the capacity of development practitioners themselves to support such change processes.